Nasa’s most sophisticated rover has so far exploded on Mars during a mission to answer one of the deepest questions: has life originated on another planet?
Mission controllers have set their sights on the 28-mile (45 km) crater Jezero north of the planet’s equator. The landing site is one of the most promising sites for any microbial Martians preserved in the rock formed when the crater held the lake nine times larger than Loch Ness.
The $ 2.7 billion ($ 2.1billion) rover has a set of tools to analyze rocks for “biosignatures” – chemical signs of life – but will keep other samples on the surface to collect and return to Earth aboard a future mission. .
Bad weather and technical glitches aside, the Perseverance Mission will sail half a billion miles at 12:50 p.m., when the engines of the Atlas V rocket are tied to the light at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
When the coronavirus is rampant in the southern state, few scientists and engineers will be in Florida to witness the launch and instead follow events on the Internet.
“This is an early launch for us,” said Ken Williford, deputy research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “I’m going to have to be around 3 am, although I don’t know if I can sleep.
“Our plan was to have thousands of people there. One of our research teams is 400 people, and everyone will be invited. It’s completely different. We will celebrate remotely. ”
Even without a pandemic to fight, the mission became a challenge. In addition to developing powerful new instruments and an improved autopilot system, engineers built a helicopter to deploy the rover, the first to take to the air on another planet.
Named engineering, the 1.8-pound helicopter will be a “track” for future rotary ships that explore reconnaissance robots and possibly even astronauts ahead, and explore the area beyond anyone’s reach, said Mimi Aun, Ingenuity’s project manager. If perseverance is safely reduced, Ingenuity will attempt up to five flights in 30 days, clinging to the thin Martian air with four 1.2-meter-long carbon-fiber blades spinning at 2,400 rpm.
“Nervousness and nail biting will come to the surface,” Aun told the Guardian. “Surviving the first night will be great for us.”
But first you have to get there. Travel to Mars is a formidable feat, and the recent successes of the Nasa Mars Insight and Curiosity missions do not change anything. The low Martian gravity and rarefied atmosphere make entry, descent and landing so fraught that pilots tend to use the word “terror.”
After seven months of interplanetary travel, in February 2021, the spacecraft will hit the Martian sky at such a speed that its heat shield will search for 2370C (4.298F). With the propulsion engines, the probe will move to the landing site, jump out with a parachute, and then cut it, lowering the last 10 km to the surface on eight retro rockets.
Well, Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant basin of shocks north of the Martian equator. The site was chosen from more than 60 candidates because of its promises to preserve the signs of life. The crater was once home to an ancient lake and river delta, which may have collected and buried Martian microbes and locked them in rocks made of compacted clay or mud.
At the end of his robotic arm are two tools with which perseverance will look for signs of a past life or promising rocks to return to Earth. Pixl (a planetary tool for X-ray lithochemistry) can blow up rocks with a small but powerful beam to detect their spontaneous composition. Another tool, called Sherlock, will scan rocks for organic molecules and minerals. Allusions to life can lie not only in organic matter, but also in the structures that scientists see in rocks as textures and patterns of compounds.
“It is very likely that any signs of life that we encounter will be very ambiguous, very difficult to interpret, and difficult or impossible to reach a true scientific consensus on,” Williford said. “We have very good opportunities to look for potential signs of life, but we need to bring back these samples and get many people to study them using many different techniques over the years to reach something like a scientific consensus.”
Mark Sefton, an astrobiologist at Imperial College London, is part of a team that will decide which pound of rock to return to Earth, an unprecedented feat that NASA can achieve with the European Space Agency in 2031.
“We could cross a fairly deep threshold,” he said. “We are talking about the possibility of finding life on Mars, but people forget that if this happens and it will be final, it is a step change. This is the line you cross and never go back. This tells us that wherever in the universe, where you have the right conditions, the right raw materials and some time, life must arise.
“I’m excited, but I’m nervous that anything can happen that will stop the possibility of life. It is such a privilege to participate. This is historical. I don’t want something to go wrong. “